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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Here's the beef

Due to the large immigrant Vietnamese population living in Houston, we have a rather good assortment of Vietnamese food; loyalist debates over who makes the best pho broth isn't quite as popular as debates over who has the best cheeseburger, but it can get just as lively. However, because it is so common here, I seldom get a chance to eat the celebratory foods of the Vietnamese cuisine.

Encountering it while traveling is another issue altogether. On a recent trip to Seattle, a friend of mine introduced me to a notable Vietnamese restaurant, The Tamarind Tree. Tucked in an obscure strip mall in Seattle's expansive Chinatown, this restaurant is beautifully decorated inside, and appears to be patronized by a mix of Asian and non-Asian clientele.

Noting that is is a special occasion, we simply opted for the festive 7-course Vietnamese beef dinner allegedly for two. We'll learn later that this is very much an underestimate - we could have fed four. It started off with a very flavorful beef and herb salad, which we were slurping the leftover dressing from the dish.

That was followed by this beef fondue item, which was the most complicated thing of the night. Very thin slices of beef tenderloin were served along with a bubbling pot of broth, a side of thin tapioca wrapping sheets, a bowl of hot water, and an enormous dish of various vegetables (lettuce, thin slices of green banana, peel and all, cucumber, carrots), herbs and rice noodles. Along with little bowls of sauce.

We surmised that the idea was to cook the beef slices in the broth, and stuff them into the tapioca wrapping paper after that was softened in the hot water, supplemented with vegetables, dipped in sauce, and wrapped once more in lettuce. It took a while to assemble, and in the end, we were just grabbing things willy-nilly and eating them.

After that orgy, the following four courses were a series of grilled beef items. All distinct in flavor and texture, but very nice.

The last course was a humble bowl of beef congee (rice porridge). At least, it looked humble - because flavorwise, it was a knockout. Although stuffed, we couldn't let one spoonful of that porridge be wasted.

If you're in Seattle, I highly recommend a meal there.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fast food makes you go fast

For once, some pretty good reporting: The Montreal Gazette reports about a Canadian research project showing that exposure to logos of known fast food establishments induces impatience, and a sense of hurry. The paper is still in press, but a preprint can be downloaded from the lead investigator's web page at the University of Toronto. The newspaper article is actually fairly accurate in its depiction, and one of the fascinating things about the study is that logos were flashed so quickly that the test subjects couldn't really identify them, but it still induced the need to hurry things up.

The fast food phenomenon does have its effects, which sort of explains why people seem to always give the excuse that they don't have time to cook.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Think of the possibilities

A recent discovery that modifying one gene restores regeneration to mice. I love the story behind this, as the scientists discover the effect accidentally, as mice that have been notched in the ear to track them in the experiment regrow the missing part, and thus, become difficult to track.

Now, imagine if the same regenerative capabilities were afforded to pigs, cattle or chickens. Imagine being able to harvest just the sirloin or bits of hangar steak or breast meat - again and again and again, as the animal regrows the missing parts. Gruesome, maybe. But conceivable.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Candies are an indulgence, but at the same time, they're pretty staid (people after all build childhood memories around boiled sugar). So it's always great fun to find some out of the ordinary candies. Take these lollipops I found at Central Market recently:

In case you can't see that, one says "Salty Caramel", and the other is a Maple Bacon Lollipop. Titled "Man Bait".

Okay, here's another one I found in Daiso. If you can read the Kanji, good for you, but the rest, guess what makes this unusual:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reticence about cooking

Cathy Erway writes a brilliant blog called "Not Eating Out in New York", and among the topics she tackles is justifying why she chooses not to eat out in a city with as diverse a restaurant culture as New York City. Her recent article says that she doesn't need to be coddled; that in addition to the economics and educational aspects of it, cooking at home is empowering - and should happen everyday. She bemoans the fact that we are training our children to order out of a menu before how to peel an orange; the corollary I take from this is that cooking is somehow below the cultured members of society, and should be delegated to the unseen dregs of humanity (discussing the food service industry's reliance on exploited undocumented immigrant labor is another topic for another day).

I find this dovetails into the recent TV series Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, where the noted British celebrity chef attempts to reform the dining habits of the town of Huntington, WV. It's surprisingly entertaining and educational - and affirms some of my own observations here in the Houston area. I don't need ominous music to feel depressed in witnessing children who can't identify vegetables, or an educational system so detached as not to teach children how to use knives, or parents so oblivious to the amount of sugar in the milk the children are drinking. Heck, using French fries (yes, I am impressed at how carefully Oliver has adopted the American name for chips) as a means of fulfilling the dietary guidelines for vegetables is the culinary equivalent of teaching to the test.

And the waste. When Oliver tries to bring in healthier food (never mind the labor complaints, or the nitpicking about rules), the children don't eat the food, and it goes to the bin. And there I see a problem: these children aren't hungry. They are entrained to the idea that they can afford to be choosy; and of course, they'll choose these processed, salt and sugar laden stuff because they're already addicted to it. You don't let addicts choose if you want them to break the habit.

Jamie Oliver is experienced in this; he knows that the key to healthier dining is to cook the food yourself, from scratch if possible. Many of the tactics he's chosen has been televised before in his earlier show, Ministry of Food, where he converts an entire working class English town to cooking. It's a great show to watch if you have the chance, and is only four episodes long. But here's the key difference between that show, and the current American incarnation: there's very little actual cooking being shown on this side of the pond. Despite having the message that cooking food is a healthier practice that outsourcing it to a factory, Food Revolution's footage of cooking are but one second snippets of generic food prep, MTV-esque cut abouts of flipping pans, and long looks at food being plated and eaten. No actual cooking instruction is done.

Go watch the British version some time. Oliver actually gets to demonstrate a few recipes on air, from beginning to end.

To make it palatable to the American public, a show that is meant to demonstrate the virtues of cooking has to actually emasculate the very act it espouses. Ironic. Sad.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Now the important people know

Multiple sources report the "discovery" of the monitor lizard species Varanus bitatawa, a large species in the Philippines. Digging deeper reveals that the fruit eating reptile is actually well known among some Filipino peoples, who hunt it for meat. It isn't particularly endangered. Yet.

Of course, the implication here is that unless Western people have described the species, it hasn't really been discovered. Harrumph.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Soda masquerade

My office at work used to be right near the vending machines for the floor, and thus I got to meet a lot of people who came by for their daily soda break. I'm really impressed by the pervasiveness of soda (or pop or whatever your preferred local term is for it). While it did start out as a "health food", really, for the most part it's liquid carbohydrate input. There's even some research to indicate that even "diet" sodas aren't much better as they just potentiate the desire for sugar without actually fulfilling it. Fact is, most people who simply give up drinking soda tend to lose weight - and save money.

Well, aside from the so-called healthier claims of soda made with cane sugar as opposed to high fructose corn syrup, now I discovered this can of Cherry 7-Up Antioxidant.

Sorry, it's still not health food.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Huevos mas grandes

Although Houstonites refer to Canino's on Airline as the permanent farmer's market in town, it's the bigger storefront for a number of smaller vendors out in the back. Venturing back there, you find yourself transported to someplace more akin to a Mexican open air mercado, with a couple of taco trucks, as well as vendors selling fruit and vegetables by the crate.

In addition, there's this little airconditioned "Egg House" in the back; I dropped by to pick up a dozen locally harvested eggs.

On the right is a rated Jumbo egg from a nearby chain supermarket. On the left is the brown Jumbo eggs from the Egg House - while it may not be obvious, the brown egg is significantly larger than the white egg. Proof, of course, is in the cramming - I could only fit 6 eggs in the standard dozen carton for the white eggs, and even then, I couldn't shut the lid!

Moreover, the brown eggs were significantly cheaper than supermarket eggs for the dozen.

I've cracked open a couple of brown eggs - one was a double yolker. But the freshness was evident - the white was viscous, and stood tall, the yolk a rich orange-yellow.

I should probably update this with a side by side taste comparison.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The rare fast food post

I don't usually write about fast food joints, but I'll make the  exception for the readers out there who think that starch is just a distraction from the meat (you know who you are) :).

I present the KFC Double Down; two deep fried chicken patties encasing some bacon and cheese. No buns. The nutritionists are bewailing.

I say if you're eating this sort of crap and worrying about nutrition, you're deluding yourself. LOLz.

Strawberry season

I spotted these boxes of beautiful strawberries in Canino's, perhaps a harbinger of warmer weather ahead. These were allegedly grown in Alvin. If I can reliably source these I need to taste compare them with the berries from California.